Misdirection in Bullying Prevention

By: Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

A new school year brings the opportunity to renew and strengthen bullying prevention efforts. Before implementation, however, it is important to identify what is already in place and reflect on how effective these programs and strategies have been. This is especially important, as some of the traditional ways of approaching bullying prevention result in more damage to the school culture and to students themselves. 

In 2016 the National Academies of Sciences released the report Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice that included “Nonrecommended Approaches” to bullying prevention. Despite no evidence of their positive effects and compelling reasons why they should be avoided, some of these bullying prevention approaches are still commonly found in schools and communities.  Some of this misdirection in bullying prevention include zero tolerance, giving advice only, expecting bystanders to solve the problem, implementing piecemeal efforts, and implementing peer-only resolution.

First, zero tolerance policies and other harsh, punitive consequences are ineffective. Zero tolerance became a term to describe how states were responding to drug-related crimes in the United States in the 1980s (Skiba, 2000).  Conventional wisdom at the time mistakenly argued that showing no tolerance for drug-related crimes, meaning no leniency and no second chances, would reduce drug use. 

Educational policymakers began adopting a zero-tolerance stance for aggressive behavior in schools, and many schools adopted policies where students were expelled for involvement in any type of fighting. While zero-tolerance policies are ineffective and disproportionally affect students of color in general (ACLU, 2008), these types of harsh and punitive consequences are also ineffective in preventing bullying behavior. First, students who are expelled are denied the school experience altogether. This non-restorative approach ignores the need for belonging, damages the school community, and more. Furthermore, with this harsh approach, school staff might be reluctant to report students who need intervention, not exclusion and punishment. Students might also be reluctant to report bullying behavior, because of the fear of retaliation. Finally, no research supports “suspension and other exclusionary tactics” in preventing bullying; instead, evidence points to these responses as bringing “increased academic and behavioral problems” for young people engaging in bullying behavior (National Association of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016, p. 221).

Giving advice only, another misdirection in bullying prevention, may be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Adults are the first line of response; and so, bullying must be addressed by adults first. They establish and enforce policies that address bullying behavior and should be the ones to intervene in a bullying situation.

Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon (2013) surveyed 13,000 American students and asked them the most effective ways to confront bullying behavior. Students reported that traditional advice from adults, such as demanding the behavior to stop or sharing with the aggressor how it makes the targeted young person feels, is perceived as making an already-bad situation worse. Teaching canned response statements makes the assumption that social-emotional skills and strategies are adequate in both the person engaging in bullying behavior and the person being targeted. 

One particular ineffective piece of advice, fighting back, gives the mixed message that physical aggression is a viable response. It must be avoided. That advice translated into action may “escalate the level of violence,” bringing more harm to those involved (NAS, 2016).

Third, expecting bystanders to solve the problem is problematic and irresponsible. As Barbara Coloroso (2016) has suggested, the bystander role is complex, holding varying degrees of complicity in bullying. Again, adults must be the first line of response in a bullying situation. The power imbalance that separates bullying from other acts of aggression needs adult intervention. Children and young adults can learn to identify power structures and understand social injustice, and they will need guidance for this learning. One way to engage the bystanders is with a proven intervention approach implemented, guided and monitored by trained adults (NAS, 2016). When the school has implemented a proven intervention approach, not only is bullying reduced, but peer rejection is lessened (Waasdorp, Bradshaw, & Leaf, 2012). Bystanders alone cannot solve the bullying problem.

The fourth misdirection involves implementing piecemeal efforts. Motivational speakers, special assemblies, PTA meetings, and other simple, short-term solutions are often used in schools as bullying prevention strategies. Students, staff, and parents may report being entertained, inspired, even moved by these events. Unfortunately, little evidence exists that they affect bullying behavior in schools (NAS, 2016).  Motivational speakers, awareness raising assemblies, focus days, and other piecemeal efforts should not be held as isolated events. Furthermore, because they do not take into account differing student needs in the schools, schools should avoid large group assemblies on sensitive issues presented by an outsider. Finally, without adequate staff preparation and investment in the event, students are left more vulnerable than they were before the assembly.

Finally, peer-only resolution is dangerous and should be avoided for several reasons. First, while adults wish for students to have solid social-emotional skills and strategies, that process of developing them occurs under the guidance of a trusted adult. More importantly, and as stressed previously, bullying is separated by other conflicts because of the power imbalance. Peer mediation and conflict resolution provide no benefit in resolving a bullying situation (NAS, 2016).  Adult intervention is needed to erode the power struggle between students. The vulnerable and targeted youth must not be left alone to resolve a bullying situation with those engaging in the aggressive behavior. This cannot be stressed enough. Conventional wisdom such as “they will work it out” and “this is natural peer conflict” erodes any progress in preventing bullying and in protecting the most vulnerable children and young people. 

It is important to note that some of these nonrecommended approaches may be critical components of a systemic and comprehensive bullying prevention effort. However, none of these implemented in isolation will be sufficient to reduce bullying problems (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2017). Other policies, such as zero tolerance, “should be immediately discontinued” (NAS, 2016, p. 295). 

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

-Maya Angelou-


American Civil Liberties Union (2008). Dignity denied: the effect of “zero tolerance” policies of students’ human rights. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/humanrights/dignitydenied_november2008.pdf

Coloroso, B. (2016). The bully, the bullied, and the not-so-innocent bystander: From preschool to high school and beyond: Breaking the cycle of violence and creating more deeply caring communities. New York, NY: William Monroe Paperbacks.

Davis, S., & Nixon, C. L. (2013). Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Champaign, IL: Research Press Publishers.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016). Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Doi: 10.17226/23482.

Skiba, R. J. (2000). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence:  An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice   Indiana Policy Research Center. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED469537.pdf.

US Department of Health and Human Services (2017). Prevention at School. Retrieved from https://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/at-school/index.html.

Waasdorp, T. E., Bradshaw, C. P., & Leaf, P. J. (2012). The impact of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on bullying and peer rejection: a randomized controlled effectiveness trial. Archives of Pediatrics Adolescents Medicine, 166(2), 149-156.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

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